Founded in 1958 by Desmond Briscoe and Daphne Oram, the BBC Radiophonic Workshop was home to a maverick group of experimental composers, sound engineers and musical innovators. In a series of small studios within the labyrinthine corridors of the BBC Maida Vale complex, the Workshop set about exploring new ways of using – and abusing – technology to create new sounds.
Drawing on the principles of musique concréte, found sounds, early electronics, oscillators, handmade synths and tape loops the Workshop created the other-worldly soundtrack to some of BBC television and radio’s most iconic programs: The Body in Question, Horizon, Quatermass, Newsround, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, Chronicle and the iconic Doctor Who Theme – still the high water mark for British electronic music nearly 50 years after it was recorded.
The influence of the Radiophonic Workshop on popular music has been profound. From The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, Prince and Pink Floyd through to some of the most innovative contemporary electronic artists and DJs such as Aphex Twin, Four Tet and The Orb (who have all ensured the RWS albums are amongst the world’s most sampled recorded works) – the Workshop’s legacy continues to grow as new generations of musicians discover their catalogue of extraordinary recordings.
Now, nearly two decades after the Workshop was decommissioned by John Birt, original members Peter Howell, Roger Limb, Dr Dick Mills, Paddy Kingsland and long-time associate composer Mark Ayres are back working together. Variously described by the music press as the ‘electronic Buena Vista Social Club’ (The Observer) and ‘The British Kraftwerk’ (NME) the Radiophonic Workshop are currently enjoying a well deserved renaissance – their pioneering work regarded as a key influence not only on the history and development of rock, pop, electronica and dance music but on a whole new generation of DJs, electronic artists, sound designers and film composers. Whether it’s the soundtrack to Stranger Things or the score and sound design for Gravity, the influence of these pioneers of sound remains very much alive.
With their impressive back catalogue being comprehensively reissued on vinyl and CD, the release of acclaimed new works such as Burials in Several Earths and 2018’s extraordinary Possum soundtrack – and a live show featuring state-of-the-art projection mapping and archive footage from film and TV spanning their extraordinary 55-year career – the rebirth of this pioneering group of British musicians continues into the post-digital age